When it comes to suit fabrics the vast majority of tailoring aficionados would sooner invest in cut and style in tailored suits than micro-weaves and ‘smart’ materials in designer suits. As many people find the very basics of regular men’s suit fabrics confusing, we felt it worth creating a guide that explains some of the fundamentals around suit fabrics.
In this post we'll cover:
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Just as a gentleman has a suit or outfit for every occasion, so is there a fabric for every requirement. Fabric, in tailoring terms, varies based on the fineness of the thread and hence the weight per yard of fabric. Yarn numbers, originating from the industrial quantities of thread spun from a pound of wool, hover around 80 for standard wool up to over 100 for luxuriously smooth wool. It's, therefore, a number closer to 100 that that fine tailors treasure. That actual number can be left to the expertise of the tailor to decide, and an off-the-peg suit may not even mention the yarn number so the easiest starting point is with the fibre itself for understanding men’s suit fabrics.
The most important categories to bear in mind are synthetic and natural fibres. These fibres can form fabric into a variety of different weaves that provide the patterns of men’s suiting. It is how these fibres are treated and woven that produces different suit fabrics, while the array of patterns available is also the product of different weaves.
Herringbone is so called since it resembles a fish skeleton. This can make a plain coloured fabric nicely textured.
Windowpane check is an elegant pattern that breaks up the cloth into a grid. This creates a smooth wrapping effect showing the curvature around the back and boasts the tailor’s skill in matching multiple lines in different panels.
Prince-of-Wales or Glen check is a classic formal pattern of greys favoured by Edward VIII before his accession and subsequent abdication from the throne. It is a regal favourite for its gentle texture that is distinguished but not too overwhelming.
Pinstripe and chalkstripes speak for themselves as edgy icons with an air of Wall Street stockbrokers or gangsters. Feint narrow stripes are the high street staple whilst wider inch-separated chalk stripes resemble more tailored suits, due to the skill in matching the ends of the lines when joining pieces of fabric as can be seen below. This example emphasises the power of stripes when cut in a classic shape with peak lapels and double-breasted fastening for a sharp, angular effect.
These patterns make little difference to the physical characteristics of the fabric. These are decided by the fibres spun to create the threads the fabric is woven from.
When it comes to the jacket, even more visual than the pattern is the cut. We've created a free eBook on the essentials to dressing well, which can be downloaded here: Dressing Like A Gentleman.
Let's start with the most basic fabric and work our way up. The most popular man-made synthetic fabric is polyester which for all its sceptics holds a wealth of benefits as a lightweight, durable fabric that will not be consumed by moths.
On the other hand, the downsides include a shininess that together with the light fabric feels somewhat artificial. It is perfectly serviceable, but does not breath particularly well and therefore can become hot.
While the clear favourite among budget suit lines, most high-street men’s fashion suits are also made from a combination of synthetics. In the latter case branding and restricting tight trousers make the bulk of the price tag. Suits made from Polyester are an option for infrequent wear, but for wear within hot offices and during sunny afternoons more natural fibres provide a much more comfortable fabric.
The universal natural fibre is wool that, although associated with heavy tweeds actually breathes well, is water resistant to an extent and will not burn when brushed by a stray cigarette. Forgive a degree of eulogising, but this incredible fibre has been the fabric of choice for millennia. Wool can also be successfully combined with polyester to host the benefits of both fabrics as a moth-proof, breathable and economical fabric available in a variety of weights.
Recent men’s fashion has catapulted the wool-based tweed upon a glorious silver pedestal to the very height of taste. Once synonymous with the elderly and country parishes, the legislation-protected cloth now adorns young and old, hipster and traditionalist and never had need to be sidelined in the first place.
The cottage industries of weavers of UK suiting fabric on the Scottish island of Harris have been saved as Regent Street is awash from Liberty’s to Cordings with the distinctive orb badge upon handbags, wallets and jackets. Perhaps its challenge is the sheer volume of choice. We much admire some of the more luxurious weaves of colourful checks seen in the windows of Savile Row, plain browns carrying a feint sliver of purple or blue. These are very much modern suits, made to a weight suitable for sauntering around town in all seasons as well as the heat of the Central line.
The annual London Tweed Run takes place in May every year where over a thousand cyclists tour the city centre fully clad in the cloth.
Image Source: Hobidas.com
The waistcoat has enjoyed its revival at the same time as tweed, and with this fabric layering is the best option both for elegance and practicalities of temperature. Seek as classic a cut as possible. Tailored is certainly recommended since with good care this is a suit that can last many years.
It was this durability that inspired the tradition of replacing the most worn areas of elbows and cuffs with leather patches, but in the modern age I shall leave such matters of preservation to the wearer. For a more casual look, cotton corduroy trousers covered later can be substituted in the colour of your choice.
Seek as classic a cut as possible. Tailored is certainly recommended since with good care this is a suit that can last many years. It was this durability that inspired the tradition of replacing the most worn areas of elbows and cuffs with leather patches, but in the modern age I shall leave such matters of preservation to the wearer. For a more casual look, cotton corduroy trousers covered later can be substituted in the colour of your choice.
While the woollen cloth of most blazers makes a lighter summer alternative, a full suit remains perhaps too warm. While the blazer deserves an article in it's own right, the subject of fabrics to wear with one can be touched upon. Preferable is white, tan or grey flannel trousers, also wool, in the case of the classic navy blue jacket with gold buttons.
However, these can be difficult to get hold of while linen and cotton trousers are easy. In cooler temperatures contrasting corduroy works beautifully. The most important advice is not to attempt to match the blazer to the trousers, since it is not meant to be like a suit.
Cotton and Linen
As for travels abroad and the height of summer, many gentlemen fear the suit wholly inappropriate. For holiday makers this is quite understandable, but there remain in the mind images of Daniel Craig stepping off a jet in the Bahamas or for the more traditionally-minded, beige Bright Young Things in Venice in Brideshead Revisited. Cotton and linen here form the saviour of men’s tailoring.
Both of these fibres grown from the earth hang beautifully in stony colours. Linen in particular offers options of blends of cotton or even silk introduced to the fabric. We need not elaborate upon the mere thought of such luxury. However, we would hasten to add that the summer is and should be a time of activity.
In times of picnics, beer gardens and country walks a man’s clothing is at its most vulnerable. A good breathable fabric in a good cut need not cost the earth and will lose nothing from regular trips to the dry cleaners.
Corduroy is a form of cotton woven in such a way as to produce ‘tunnels’ that are then cut so the fibres spring outwards. This is an everyday staple, ideal in winter, though more common as separate trousers given the heavy weight.
Image Source: Thesatorialist.com
Velvet is a similar cotton with a ‘pile’ of upward-facing fibres that will wear quicker if brushed against this grain. For this reason, velvet suits are rare given their vulnerability and should be made with the trousers’ pile upward so when the wearer is sitting the sliding direction goes with the grain. Dinner suits and smoking jackets are beautiful uses of this fabric.
As a final note, matching these fabrics can seem a daunting prospect. Although the joy of the suit is that the top and bottom are pre-ordained for you, much of men’s fashion focuses on accessories such as scarves, pocket squares and ties. Each has their own benefits a formula cannot encapsulate.
For instance, a silk scarf goes with anything. However, a general rule to keep in mind is that to match fabrics you should match the weight. Heavy wools go with heavy wools like tweed but would look out of place with linen.
Herbert James Draper, 1863 - 1920, The Lament for Icarus, 1898 100% Silk Hand Rolled Designed and Printed in Britain 42cm x 42cm This classic work is from British painter...
Charles Le Brun 1619-90, The Triumph of Alexander, or the Entrance of Alexander into Babylon, c.1673 100% Silk Hand Rolled Designed and Printed in Britain 42cm x 42cm A beautiful...
The British Empire Exhibition Commemorative Handkerchief, 1924. © Museum of London 100% Silk Hand-rolled Designed and Printed in Britain 42cm x 42cm This stunning silk pocket square has been reproduced...
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